Choosing a Subject for Your College Writing 

First ask: What kind of writing are you doing? Some of the main areas of college writing include:

  •  Standard academic writing. This is by far the most common form of college writing. It may be informative, narrative, descriptive, persuasive, or may take many other forms, but is usually about a subject other than yourself. This may require research, or may simply ask for your considered opinion or scholarly response to a text, graphic or experience.


  • Technical writing. This is practical writing for a purpose and usually has to do with science, technology, business and economics, or with some other specific class or discipline.    


  • Expressive writing. This is about yourself, your own life, your experiences, your thoughts and emotions, and who you are as a person. This type of writing is rare in college, except in some first-semester composition assignments or creative writing classes.


  • Other sorts of writing, such as journalism, poetry, fables, short stories and novels, travelogues, translations, etc., are ordinarily encountered in specialized courses.    

Decide the subject of your writing based on the following:

A.  First and most importantly, your purpose. Be clear about the type of writing you are doing, the purpose for which you are writing, or the limits of your assignment. Ask yourself: What is the demand for your writing, and what specific goal do you wish to accomplish with this writing?  

B.  Secondly, your audience. Serve your audience, and serve them obsessively. Ask yourself: Who is your intended audience, and what do they want or need? What are their interests? What do you want to communicate to them? What subjects will pass their “Who cares?” test?

C.  Finally, you yourself. Explore your own knowledge, skills, interests or experiences. Ask yourself: Which subject that you are interested in will meet both “A” and “B” above?  If the answer is “nothing,” what else can you write about or do you want to learn about? 

A KEY TO GOOD COLLEGE WRITING: Choose the most specialized subject you canMost beginning scholars are scared to death that they will end up with a subject that is too narrow to find anything about. This is a major error—with the Internet, the library, and other resources available to today's scholars, there is enough information available to do a good paper on almost ANY subject, no matter how specialized.

A much more common and serious problem occurs when students choose something far too broad, something that would take a large book (or a career) to cover completely, and they do a miserable, superficial job of it! Then they wonder why they get a low grade on their writing, when if they had chosen a more specialized subject on which they could become an expert in the time available, they would have gotten a far higher grade. 


YELLOW LIGHT—subjects to approach with caution:


1.    "News of the day," “hot-button” type themes. None of us normally knows any more about these than what the media feeds us, and the only thing any of us can do is paraphrase what we all heard in the news or read in the paper. That is a fairly useless exercise, as far as I can see, unless we have some unique or dissenting analysis of the news, or some special source of information others do not.


2.   General “For Dummies®”-type subjects. Generally, you will not be writing “dumbed-down” introductions to a broad subject for people who are ignorant. Most of the time, you will be expected to write as an expert to other scholars and experts.


3.    “Janie or Johnny One-note” subjects. As a beginning scholar, try to write on as many different subjects as you can. Beware of getting stuck on one subject, no matter how interested you are in it. A beginning scholar who can only write on one subject is as useless as an apprentice cook who can only prepare one dish.


4.    Excessively personal or intimate subjects. The traditional “touchy” subjects (sex, religion and politics) are usually great for first-year college papers, but be sure your paper is not too personal (or too gross) to share with the rest of the class. Remember that your reputation (ethos) depends on your writing.


 RED LIGHT-Subjects to avoid in college writing:


Avoid “fluff” subjects such as entertainment and sports, TV, movies, gaming, skateboarding, etc., or anything having to do with current “stars,” entertainers or personalities. Avoid “teen” subjects like “my room,” “my locker,” “my personal hero,” or “what I want to be when I grow up”—instead, write as an adult among adults, since you are (or soon will be!) an adult.

Also, try to avoid subjects that have already been worked to death, such as legalization of banned substances, gun control, the death penalty, helmet laws or underage smoking and drinking, unless you have something truly new and unique to say on these worn-out themes. Finally, avoid anything "preachy," unless, of course, your purpose is to preach.


Suggested link:

Bedford St. Martin’s Rules for Writers subject index

o.w. 12/05 Rev 12/07

For educational purposes only.


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